From HMAS Melbourne to Shandong: The Story of China’s Aircraft Carrier Programme

The Chinese just like their Soviet counterparts maintained that they won’t be building aircraft carriers for the naval arm of People’s Liberation Army i.e. PLAN. Changing geo-political scenario and the rise of carrier centric fleets forced China to review its policies and start the procurement of aircraft carriers. In this article, you will get the complete story of China’s carrier ambition as it went from no go to full speed ahead.

The communist parties in China and the Soviet Union followed different ideals which led to the Soviet-Sino split in the early 1960s. Thus USSR became the primary enemy for the Chinese. They feared a massive land invasion led by the Soviet army and supported by the Soviet air force. These forces could bring 1000s of tanks and aircraft to bear which meant that a similar force was required to stop their advance. Thus the land and air branches of PLA got a lot more attention than the PLAN. PLAN’s role was simple, it was to accomplish the 3 following points and keep the Chinese coastline secure.

  1. First, conduct maritime guerrilla operations using small naval and naval aviation formations to attack and harass dispersed enemy forces.
  2. Second, conduct rapid naval sorties to attack the enemy’s sea lanes and coastal targets within China’s immediate periphery.
  3. Third, carry out littoral operations under cover of ground artillery and land-based aircraft.

USSR started showing signs of an impending collapse starting from the mid 1980s. The German reunification left the cracks open for everyone to see. Thus over the years the threat from the Soviet Union went down in the priority list and the PLAN started getting attention in terms of resources and funds. These events coincided with the rise of Admiral Liu Huaqing, the father of China’s modern navy. He wanted the PLAN to increase its capabilities and suggested a major shift in its strategy from “Coastal Defense” to “Offshore Defense” (the names of strategies are direct translations from the iractual Chinese names) . PLAN was now expected to operate independently, far away from China’s coasts, in short blue water operations.

Blue water operations need large aircraft carriers for power projection along with nuclear submarines for sea denial and protecting the aircraft carriers. Surface escorts are also needed for keeping the carriers safe. An impressive fleet of replenishment vessels is needed to make sure that all these assets are well supplied irrespective of where they are operating. Thus the new strategy included developing and operating indigenous aircraft carriers, nuclear powered submarines, escorts, replenishment vessels etc. All of this fell under the “Offshore Defense” strategy, which was approved in 1986.

Developing all of the aforementioned assets at once is nearly impossible. The Chinese first concentrated on developing potent escorts, replenishment vessels and nuclear submarines thus scaling back the plans for an indigenous carrier. They started looking for a carrier which could be procured directly. They managed to procure 4 vessels, HMAS Melbourne, Kiev, Minsk and Varyag (second Admiral Kuznetsov class vessel). These vessels accomplished different roles for the Chinese.

kunetsov class (2)The Kuznetsov Sisters

HMAS Melbourne R21

The Melbourne was a Majestic class CATOBAR carrier operated by the Royal Australian navy. She was retired by the Australians in 1982, after spending years in mothball she was sold to the Chinese for scrapping. The Australians had removed all of the sensitive tech except the catapult, arresting gear and the mirror landing system. The mirror landing system is used to guide the pilot onto the deck by informing him about his relative position with respect to the flight deck. All modern carriers have advanced derivatives of the original concept developed by the British. Before this system was developed, a sailor was tasked to guide the pilot onto the deck using hand signals.

Image result for australian navy hmas melbourne
HMAS Melbourne R21 during her days of glory

Reportedly, PLAN officials knew nothing about the vessel until it had arrived in China. The scrapping was expected to begin immediately but it didn’t happen. For 9 years, ie from 1985 to 1994, she lay undisturbed except for occasional visits by officers and engineers of PLAN. They reportedly studied her inside out during this time. The catapult, arresting gear and the landing sight were removed and installed at a base in Dalian on a replica flight deck after being analysed. Interestingly a J-8 was reportedly modified and used for flight tests from the facility. The scrapping began in 1994 and took several years to complete. If online sources are to be trusted, the scrapping ended in the 2002 i.e. it took 8 years to break down the 15,000 tonne vessel. It is obvious that each and every part which came off the carrier was extensively studied before being melted down for reuse.

The Melbourne thus gave the Chinese carrier programme a shot in the arm. It helped them develop some of the much needed procedures for carrier ops before a carrier could be fielded for real. It also gave them chance at examining systems like catapults and arrestor gear which are essential for carrier operations. Melbourne was a WW2 era design but helped fill the void of information required to design carriers.

The Deception

The Chinese procured 3 carriers after Melbourne i.e. Kiev, Minsk and Varyag. Minsk was procured in 1995 from Russia for conversion into a tourist attraction followed by Varyag which was supposed to be a tourist attraction too. Kiev was procured the last in 1996 for conversion into a theme park. According to Deciphering Chinese strategic deception by Kong, Eu Yen it was a deception. It was done as the Chinese wanted the procurement to be discrete as it would have strained its relationship with the west. Thus the procurement of former Soviet carriers Kiev and Minsk was carried out to strengthen the cover story that these vessels were being bought for conversion into tourist attractions instead of military use. Varyag was thus bought on the same grounds and ended up in a dry dock in Dalian.

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Varyag under tow

From this dry dock emerged Liaoning, China’s first combat ready aircraft carrier. Varyag was quietly refurbished, painted, modified to make sure it works well with PLAN assets and commissioned on 25th Sept 2012. While the work on Liaoning was going on, the Chinese built a full scale system’s check mock-up in Wuhan to study various possible sensor configurations and finalise what would be installed on Liaoning. Mockups of jets and helicopters were also spotted on the deck.

20Wuhan Mockup, you can see the jet on the deck and the encircled gaps for deck edge elevators.

20
Liaoning during her commissioning ceremony.

The Jets: J-15

The Chinese had been looking for carrier borne aircraft for some time. They started negotiations with Russia for procuring the Su-33. The Su-33 is arguably the best 4th generation naval fighter design in service today. Its Flanker lineage offers superb agility, payload and range even while operating from a ski-jump. Thus the Naval Flanker offered by Russia was arguably the best possible choice for the Chinese. Disputes stopped the sale of off the shelf jets from Russia and the Chinese had to make a suitable replacement domestically.

4
Chinese engineers with the T-10K3, the one from Ukraine.

They had reportedly procured a T-10K prototype from Ukraine in 2001 and it was handed over to the domestic aviation industry for analysis. The aspects necessary for safe and sustained carrier ops were then added to the J-11 thus giving rise to the J-15. It is interesting that the Su-33 was developed from the Su-27 the aircraft J-11 derives its design from. The prototype flew for the first time in August 2009 and bore close resemblance to the Su-33. It sported similar folding wings and tail surfaces along with canards and a twin wheel nose landing gear. Interestingly, commissioning ceremony revealed a picture of the deck with tyre marks indicating some ops have been done.

CV16Tyre marks can clearly be seen between the chairs and  arresting wires.
(Credits: On the pic)

The inhouse development of J-15 is a big boon for the Chinese. They now know how to design future carrier borne aircraft with no external assistance. They can easily modify the fighters they have built for future proofing them as they age without going through the tedious task of doing it via Sukhoi. Another interesting point worth noting is that it has been known for a long time that follow on carriers could be CATOBAR. The J-15 is designed for launches from a ski-jump and hence lacks a nose tow link. Such a link connects the nose gear to the catapult for catapult assisted launches. A J-15 has been seen flying with such a link over China hinting at a CATOBAR variant. This along with the presence of EMAL and Steam Catapult testing site has confirmed that the Chinese are deeply interested in CATOBAR carriers and we might see such vessels serving the PLAN in the near future.

1
The nose-tow link equipped airframe.

4
EMALS & Steam catapult testing site

Developing an Indigenous Carrier: 001A a.k.a. Shandong

The obvious step after commissioning a refurbished carrier is to build one from the scratch using all the know how gained over the years. The Chinese had reportedly obtained all of the blue prints used to build Varyag from Ukraine. These designs played a monumental role in designing and building the Shandong. The Chinese designate important naval projects using the Type designation for eg. Type 052D destroyer. The carriers were thus designated as follows.

  1. Type 001   :  Liaoning
  2. Type 001A:  A carrier based on Liaoning’s design (turned out to be Shandong)
  3. Type 002 and so on: Possible CATOBAR carriers of higher displacement, future ones might have nuclear propulsion.

Rumors were afloat in the 2013 that work on a carrier had begun in the Dalian shipyard. By Q1 of 2015, keel of an unknown vessel had been laid down in the same drydock Liaoning had occupied. As time progressed and more modules were assembled carrier like features were observed. The vessel had a definitive hangar which according to some was a hold of a bulk freighter. Addition of modules which had the space for deck edge elevators confirmed that the said vessel was a carrier indeed. Its dimensions matched those of Liaoning too. Then in September 2016, the ski-jump was placed which confirmed that this vessel was indeed 001A and not some ordinary freighter. The island came on in September and then on a fateful day in April 2017 the vessel was launched.

001AThe journey of 001A from keel laying to launch
(Credits: On the pic)

Shandong features a lot of changes over Liaoning and the baseline Kuznetsov design. The island is shorter allowing 1-2 more J-15s to be parked on the deck. The flight deck has been extended on sponsons in the aft-starboard quarter allowing a further 2 J-15s to be parked there thus increasing the complement of aircraft carried by 4 over the 58 of Liaoning/Kuznetsov. The redesigned island sports Type 346A radar arrays placed at an angle instead of the Type 346 on Liaoning which are arranged differently. The hangar is still a point of debate as some believe it is extended to cover the area occupied by Granit batteries on Kuznetsov and Liaoning whereas others don’t believe it was changed.

1
Shandong post launch (Credits: On the pic)

Over all once the Chinese have perfected all factors of carrier ops (if they haven’t already) they will soon have 2 very potent aircraft carriers at service. Liaoning and Shandong will have an impressive fleet of escorts keeping them safe. Escorts would include the under construction Type 055, in service 052D, 052C destroyers and 054A frigates. First Type 901 replenishment vessel has also started its sea trials when this article was being written and it has been specifically designed for sustained carrier ops away from the shores. With such an impressive fleet being built, these carriers will allow the Chinese to buttress their territorial claims and deter other navies from operating in waters close to where these carriers are present.

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This is the Type 901 replenishment vessel.

Let us now have a look at the differences between 001 and 001A.

4Liaoning is to the left, deck extensions can be seen along with the shorter island.
(Credits: On the pic)

4
Comparison from the front, the islands are pretty different.

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